I am old enough (but just old enough, honestly) to remember when the Canadian flag was first adopted by Parliament (before that it was the British ensign). There was (in true Canadian spirit) a spirited debate before the maple leaf was adopted on the flag. For some, the adoption of the maple leaf as our national symbol was an insult, seen by several monarchists to be a clear rebuke of our “British heritage”. To others though, the adoption of the maple leaf was far more insidious – it was clearly an eastern Canadian plot to adopt a symbol which did not grow west of “Upper Canada” (i.e. Ontario).
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Out of 150 species of maple world-wide, ten of them grow in Canada: sugar, red, Manitoba, vine, Douglas, bigleaf, silver, mountain, black and striped. And guess what, there is one of these maple species growing in every province in Canada – from Newfoundland to British Columbia.
But what really separates Canada from the rest of the world is what this wonderful tree gives us: that golden nectar of the Gods, that perfect liquid for pancakes and “pudding chomeur”… maple syrup!
I am one of those lucky Canadians who participate in a wonderful tradition that signals an end to winter, that distinguishes Canada from the rest of the world – I make my own maple syrup. Canadians are fortunate to have an abundance of this one type of tree (the maple) and the one type of climate (cold) that enables us to produce the most perfect of all foods – maple syrup (and all its wonderful forms: candy, taffy, butter and sugar!).
First Nations (and the famous botanist Marie-Victorin) talked of watching squirrels licking wounds left by broken maple branches as the first indication of the sweet “maple water”. Historical records of the early explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries frequently mention maple syrup production by First Nations people. Eventually, by the 19th century the Europeans incorporated the practice and began to transform it with buckets, spiles and wood fired evaporators.
About 85% of the world’s maple syrup is produced in Canada and about 90% of Canada’s supply comes from Quebec! Production in the maple syrup industry is generally measured in the number of taps with most official “producers” in Quebec (where I live) having at least (wait for this) 10,000 taps!
You don’t have to have 10,000 taps however to participate in this truly Canadian tradition. You could be like me – a “backyard maple syrup producer”. At the end of the season, I will easily produce enough maple syrup to supply my own family’s needs with my 30 taps, while also getting to play “Nectar God” and giving presents to lucky family members, workmates and many other lucky souls. What a wonderful way to celebrate our heritage, to connect with nature, to celebrate the return of spring and to pretend, in a limited way, to “live off the land”. And the friends you make when that sap is boiling away on your front porch! Incredible and memorable.
The biology of maple syrup production is well-known, but at the same time a little mysterious. We use maple trees because they have the sweetest, best-tasting sap, especially in spring. Any species of maple will do, but sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and black maple (Acer nigrum) have the sweetest sap (at 2% to 3% sugar). I know producers in Manitoba who make very good syrup with the prolific Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) and there are probably others further west making it out of bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) as well. (If you are one of them, contact me!) Sugars manufactured by the leaves of the tree the summer before (remember your biology class) are sent to the roots for storage. With the longer days and higher temperatures of spring, the tree calls on these sugar reserves to initiate bud expansion and hence a new set of leaves.
When we tap the maple tree, we are technically tapping the “xylem” (i.e. the tissue in plants that conducts water and nutrients upward from the root) – withdrawing approximately 7% of the total sap. I am still tapping maple trees I planted 20 years ago (what a great feeling that is!) that could yield sap well into their 200th year with no long-term damage to the tree. Tapping is traditionally done by drilling a 7/16-inch hole about 8 cm (3 inches) deep in trees at least 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter. The number of taps per tree increases with the diameter of the tree. For example a really large tree about 63 cm in diameter (or 25 inches) can take four taps. Traditionally, a bucket with a lid is hung from a spile that is driven into the hole. From there, the magic begins! A well-drilled tap in a sugar maple tree can easily yield one litre of finished syrup during the season.
Then comes the huge task of collecting and boiling. Because the sap can spoil on warm days, the sap has to be collected daily and either kept cold or sent to the evaporator. The ratio of sap to finished syrup is about 40:1, so the amount of boiling is tremendous. It takes 40 L of sap to make one litre of syrup and about double that to boil down to enjoy maple taffy on snow.
Maple sap becomes maple syrup when the sugar density is 66.7 degree Brix (the measure of sugar content) or when the boiling point is 4 °C above that of boiling water.
Today, there are many technological innovations for serious producers such as pipeline systems and reverse osmosis. But for us “backyarders” the bucket and boil method (by wood fire or propane) will probably always prevail. Besides, what a great way to connect with our historical traditions. So, enjoy the welcome of spring by visiting a sugar bush with your friends or workmates, buying maple products and trying to produce maple syrup, the nectar of the Gods, on your own land and feel proud to be a Canadian!
Michael Rosen, R.P.F., President, Tree Canada